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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Poor Scoping Leaves Residual Space

It is encouraging to see New York City developing more sustainable stormwater management. Unfortunately, the recent bioswale constructed on Bronx Park East at Pelham Parkway earns a grade of "D" as an urban infrastructure project. Poorly scoping the project left residual spaces and diminished functionality, which will ultimately be more expensive and disruptive to address later.

The bioswale detains storm water that would otherwise increase combined sewer overflows
The hatched area to the right probably could have been unpaved as well

The hatched area at this end is also useless, leftover space
It should be an active space as a refuge island as part of the greenway connection

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dirty Heat and Ugly Streetscapes

In a city with transportation as efficient as New York City, much of the energy use and air pollution comes from building systems. The old, decrepit heating systems in many of the city's aging apartment buildings is a particular problem.

Many community activists focus their energy on trucks. The impacts of heavy vehicles traveling on streets with children is undeniable, and smart campaigns to improve the routing and safety of large vehicles need all the support they can get. The fixation on trucks to address asthma problems, on the other hand, seems largely misplaced. Refocusing some of that energy and attention on heating systems would do more to combat asthma, improve quality of life for lower-income residents, and reduce energy consumption.

Combating truck use is largely a futile effort, since many of these trips are necessary and relatively efficient. Companies have already done a great deal to optimize routing in the interest of cutting costs to improve their own profits. Federal regulations have already vastly improved emissions in recent years. There are certain investments that could make rail alternatives more competitive, and I do not mean to discount them. Yet these are mostly changes on the margin and require major investment. The benefits that would ultimately reach disadvantaged communities would be small and diffuse.

Rather than pouring all the energy into the invisible remaining emissions from the tailpipes of trucks supporting working-class jobs, it's time to focus on the buildings belching big black clouds of smoke over low-income and working-class neighborhoods. Targeted support to improve heating systems in old apartment buildings could be implemented more quickly and continued on an ongoing basis, with much better results. Every time one of these buildings is improved, the quality of life would directly benefit the residents, mostly lower-income, who have had to suffer from poor heating for countless winters.

As it stands now, many heating units actually fail in these buildings. Then an emergency mobile boiler is brought in, parked on the street, and connected into the building. The residents who suffer from the lack of heat are far more impacted than anybody else, not only by suffering through the cold by also by the way they are marked with a sign of poverty. You truly have a "poor door" when there's an emergency boiler sitting outside the entrance to your apartment building.

The emergency boilers have negative effects for others in the neighborhood, too. When an emergency boiler gets plopped down, the deterioration of the building starts to erode the public space in the neighborhood. These boilers contribute to poor air quality, remove parking spaces from use, disrupt street cleaning during alternate side parking, and create an unattractive space that may even feel unsafe for pedestrians walking down the sidewalk between the building and the boiler.

Addressing these building systems really should be priority repairs. Although far too slowly, there has been some progress, primarily by converting the buildings to natural gas. Not only are the new systems cleaner and more efficient, supplying them with fuel is less disruptive.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Gas Stations as Corner Stores

Planners talk about the mythical corner store. It is generally accepted wisdom that residents should all have a place within walking distance where they can buy that virtuous "quart of milk." Yet, ironically, it is often the very same planners who are hostile toward the businesses that actually serve this role in many communities throughout the country: gas stations.

Sit and watch for a while, and you will see some interesting things at many neighborhood gas stations. Interestingly, at such quintessentially auto-oriented businesses, there is often a surprising amount of pedestrian activity.

In many existing communities throughout America, I have seen more walking trips to gas station convenience marts than anywhere else in town. Even in some dense city neighborhoods, I have observed gas stations filling a role where urban poverty has left residents with few retail options. This is much more an indictment of poor overall development patterns than a recommendation for gas stations, yet improving existing places requires dealing with them on the terms of their actual assets. Bemoaning deficiencies does not build up a place.